Tobold's Blog
Monday, November 24, 2014
Innovation through core-shell design

I have in the past repeatedly talked about my general model for modern games: A core gameplay that is frequently repeated (e.g. combat), with a shell of other activities (e.g. quests, story) binding those core gameplay elements together. One of the interesting things of this model is that if you look at many different games, you'll notice that the core and the shell are not very strongly connected; you can switch out just one of them to get to a new game, while keeping the other identical. One example would be MMORPGs which generally work like World of Warcraft, but which substituted the WoW core combat by some sort of action combat.

That can lead to quite innovative games if you look far beyond typical game elements for a specific genre, and substitute either the core or the shell of a game by something from a very different genre. This weekend I played Rollers of the Realm, a game with a traditional fantasy shell in which the core combat gameplay has been replaced by a pinball game: Your characters are pinballs of different sizes and attributes. Your healer heals the flippers by bumping into mana, your knight damages enemies by bumping into them, your rogue deals more damage if he bumps into the enemy from behind, and so on. It is not a very huge game, I've completed it in 10 hours, but as it only costs 8 Euros ($10?) that is quite okay. At least it was a very new and unique gameplay experience, and we don't get very many of those any more these days.

Usually it is easier to take a game and replace the core gameplay. But some combinations of core and shell have become so traditional that switching to a different shell can also work. Another game I played this weekend is the somewhat mediocre Battle of Littledom, a fantasy game with core combat gameplay similar to the Final Fantasy series. But instead of a more traditional questing and character management shell, the devs used the shell gameplay from games like Puzzle & Dragons, where you collect characters, fuse them together to gain more levels, and evolve them into stronger characters. Puzzle & Dragons uses this shell with a core match-3 gameplay, but there are games that use the same shell for a trading card game (Elemental Kingdoms) core, or even a carnival coin dozer core (Dragon Coins).

I think there could be more innovative games with unusual combinations of already existing core and shell game elements. I'm still waiting for somebody to make my 10-year old Shandalar project come true, a MMORPG using trading cards for combat.

I think reusing halves of familiar systems is only marginally better than reusing systems as a whole. It still remains a horrible thing for a designer to do. The checkbox design like "okay, we are doing an RPG, so we gotta have levels, hitpoints, stats, skills, NPCs and story, and maybe, if we get REALLY creative, no cooldowns" should be abolished, otherwise we'll be stuck playing the same game under different names (as we actually already do).

In each particular game many of the gameplay assumptions and decisions turn out to be context-dependent, unnecessary or just plain wrong. By copying them we allow them to stick around and burden new designs.

If you look at board games, the genre definitions there are a lot less clear, and smaller parts (just mechanics) are usually copied and reused. That's, in my opinion, is why board games are usually more solid gameplay-wise.
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